Who won? Who lost? Who made the biggest gaffe? These are the questions journalists ask after a presidential debate, focused as they are on keeping score. But the answers are not much help to would-be voters, who see debates through a different lens and who are looking for the news media to help them draw their own conclusions.
Citizens see debates not only as good political theater, but also as one of their best opportunities to learn about the candidates. In 1992, one-third said the debates were critical in helping them make up their minds.
Yet instead of treating debates as a glimpse into the candidates' grasp of the issues, the pragmatism of their proposals, and their poise under pressure, journalists have traditionally treated them as prizefights. A debate in news-speak becomes a bout, a contest, or a face-off. Just look at the Oct. 7 headlines: "Dole Jabs and Clinton Counters," The New York Times said. "Clinton, Dole Slug It Out," Reuters said.
The news media base their judgment, in part, on the consensus of those semiprofessional referees known as spin doctors. Their presence is now such a fixture at debates that press credentials this year allow access to a location officially known as "Spin Alley." The spin meisters' verdicts are just as predictable as their presence, but they seem irresistible to the news media.
Some news organizations have tried to break free of the spinners and include the views of voters, but many of their efforts have been flawed.
The latest gimmick of choice is the insta-poll, in which viewers rate the debate as it happens by twisting dials to show their approval or disapproval. The result, as seen on NBC on Oct. 6, was a series of squiggly lines crawling across the TV screen: immediate, yes, but raw and essentially meaningless.
What's missing in debate coverage isn't speed, but reflection. Replacing the sound-bites of the spin meisters with the pseudoscientific results of an instant poll adds none of the context viewers need to understand a debate.
It's true that well-placed debate zingers are memorable moments, and journalists are right to report them. Who can forget Lloyd Bentsen's "you're no Jack Kennedy" retort to Dan Quayle during the vice-presidential debate in Omaha in '88? Bentsen won the competition for best line, but that's not what was at stake.
To interpret the true value of debates, the news media need to pitch out their sports analogies, or if that's too much to expect, at least shift their focus from the players to the audience. Instead of basing their predebate coverage on what each candidate must do to win the debate, they might more usefully ask what voters should be listening for.
Journalists could arm viewers with a debate-watching guide, drawing on suggestions from the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates or the League of Women Voters. Among the questions they propose: Do the candidates answer questions directly, or are they evasive? Do they discuss issues in a positive way, or do they mostly attack their opponents? Perhaps most important, are their answers realistic?
After the debate, instead of focusing on style and strategy, the news media should look at the substance of what the candidates say. Did they contradict their positions? Did they make any sense?
And instead of hooking up likely voters to elaborate machinery, reporters could seek out one of the hundreds of Debate Watch events across the country, where interested citizens will gather to view the debates. Rather than asking who they think won, journalists could ask what the audience learned, and whom they would rather see as president.
Yes, a debate is a contest, and journalists love a good fight. So how about reporting on different contenders - not the candidates against each other, but the candidates' statements compared with citizens' concerns. Did the candidates focus on the same problems that voters have on their minds? Did they offer practical solutions or empty rhetoric?
There is some good news in the structure of the debates this year: no panel of journalist questioners. The single moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, is able to focus on follow-ups instead of one-upmanship, which often seems the hidden agenda when journalists share a stage.
Another positive: The final debate in San Diego on Oct. 16 will be a town meeting, a reprise of what most analysts believe was the most successful format of the 1992 series. Citizens usually ask questions that are more personal, more pointed, and far less predictable than those of journalists, resulting in more-revealing answers from the candidates.
It is also good news that presidential debates have become a fixture of our electoral system. This is the sixth straight presidential election in which the major candidates have debated on national television. Not all candidates love debates, but they realize their value to voters.
Now it's up to journalists to boost the value of debates by shunning a simple thumbs-up-or-down verdict and providing the American public with useful yardsticks that can help them decide the outcome for themselves.
*Deborah Potter teaches at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.